Harold Athol Lannigan Fugard (pronounced fewgard) was born June 11, 1932, in Middelburg, a town in the Great Karoo, a semidesert region of Cape Province, South Africa. The son of an Anglo-Irish father and an Afrikaner mother, Fugard is an ethnic hybrid. English is his first language, but because of his mother’s dominant personality, Afrikaner culture profoundly affected him. Fugard simultaneously honors and excoriates his Afrikaner roots. The two major abstractions of Fugard’s work—love and truth—he saw fleshed out as he grew up in Port Elizabeth, a multiracial, industrial, windswept town on the eastern Cape to which his family moved when he was three.
Fugard’s father lost a leg in a shipboard accident as a child, and in spite of successfully leading a series of jazz bands, he retired early, when Fugard was young, to a life of unemployment and alcoholism. Fugard’s ambivalent feelings about his father color much of his work, especially Hello and Goodbye and “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys. His mother supported the family, first by running a boardinghouse, the Jubilee Hotel, and then by operating the St. George’s Park Tea Room, the scene of “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys. Early in life, Fugard thus learned about failed expectations, a major theme in his work, and about hard times.
As a schoolboy, Fugard, then known as Hally, shunned his peers and spent his free time with his mother’s waiters, Sam Semela and Willie Malopo. (These men appear in “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys under their real names.) Sam, in particular, though middle-aged, became Fugard’s friend and the most influential adult in his life. Fugard looked up to Sam as a man in the fullest sense of that word; while Sam taught Fugard about being a man, Fugard shared his schoolroom experiences and books with him. For some inexplicable reason, one day Fugard insulted Sam; he did not expiate his guilt for this act until he wrote “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys. In real life, Sam Semela forgave Fugard almost immediately, and they remained friends until Sam died in 1983, shortly before the play in his honor opened in Johannesburg.
Fugard studied philosophy at the University of Cape Town from 1950 to 1953, but he quit immediately before his final examinations to hitchhike up Africa with a poet friend, deciding that the academic life was not for him. From 1953 to 1955, he traveled around the world on a merchant ship on which he was the only white crew member. He was married in 1956 to Sheila Meiring, who introduced him to the theater. When they moved to Johannesburg in 1958, Fugard was employed for three months as a clerk in the Fordsburg Native Commissioner’s Court; then he began working with amateur black actors in Sophiatown, then Johannesburg’s black ghetto. He also worked as a stage manager for the National Theatre Organization before he and his wife went to England and Europe in 1959.
The Fugards returned to South Africa in 1960, and the initial production of The Blood Knot in 1961 and its six-month tour around South Africa were crucial to Fugard’s development as a playwright. In 1962, Fugard instigated a boycott of South Africa’s segregated theaters by British playwrights, but by 1967 he had decided that even in such compromising circumstances, voices were preferable to silence. Fugard visited the United States briefly in 1964 and returned to England in 1966; both trips involved productions of The Blood Knot. His government withdrew his passport from 1967 to 1971. From 1963 to 1974, he directed and produced European plays as well as collaborating on indigenous South African material with the New Brighton actors known as the Serpent Players; many of these actors were arrested between 1965 and 1967. Since 1977, Fugard’s reputation has been such that he divides his time between South Africa and the rest of the globe: the United States, Europe, Asia, and India. The United...
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